Sunday Reads: A tribute to Dick Wagner and creating spaces

In case you missed it, Madison Magazine is sharing our introduction to the last month's edition of our monthly 'Sunday Reads' newsletter.
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This article originally appeared as the introduction to the December edition of Madison Magazine’s monthly “Sunday Reads” newsletter, curated by Associate Editor Maggie Ginsberg. The rest of the monthly newsletter includes links to other articles within and outside of the magazine, plus book coverage and other literary news around town. Sign up for future newsletters here.

In those short, mid-December days leading up to the solstice, as the mornings stayed dark and night came earlier and earlier, I learned that Dick Wagner died. The first thing I thought of was light — specifically, his candlestick collection.

I didn’t know Wagner. But that didn’t stop him from welcoming me into his home on the single occasion we met. I was there to interview him for a 2019 cover story on remarkable Madisonians of a certain age. He was 75 at the time, and just finishing up writing two books on LGBTQ history in Wisconsin. We could have done our interview by phone, or met at a coffee shop like most sources prefer. But he’d insisted I visit him at the 1857 brick Italianate he’d lived in since 1981, where he greeted me with a tea service on delicate French china. We sipped red herbal tea, “the bush tea from the ‘Ladies Detective Agency’ books,” he told me.

I was immediately charmed by Wagner and his home, which was filled with reading material, historical memorabilia, art and antiques that all meant something to him. The candlesticks stood out in particular — there must have been at least 12 sets, clustered on a cherry table to my left, and each had a story. He said he used them as a substitute for the lack of fireplaces, their warmth and light welcoming friends at his many dinner parties.

If you’re not familiar with Wagner’s life or his work, much has been written — and he wrote much himself — that will give you a clear idea of who he was and how it likely impacted you, whether you realized it or not. Wagner believed in creating the spaces in which he wanted to live, not only within his own house, but all throughout Dane County and beyond. “In one sense, it’s a privilege to live in such a special place,” he said of Madison that day. “It’s an even greater privilege to help build it as a special place.”

Wagner’s death is a profound loss, but his life burned bright and that glow remains. As we close out yet another challenging year, and a holiday season where many are celebrating without loved ones, I hope the light is finding you. I hope you are taking comfort in the lengthening of the days and the knowledge that we can all help create the spaces in which we want to live, for ourselves and for everyone else.

This article originally appeared as the introduction to the December edition of Madison Magazine’s monthly “Sunday Reads” newsletter, which is curated by Associate Editor Maggie Ginsberg and includes a rundown on current the print issue, links to print stories you might have missed, web exclusive content like the Doug Moe’s Madison blog, highlighted articles from other journalists that caught our attention, author Q&As and other literary coverage around town. To sign up for the monthly newsletter, enter your email address below.

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